It's been a good day for the food, beverage, and advertising lobbies and their fight against the federal government’s proposed voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children.
During a joint hearing of two House subcommittees, one Health, the other Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, Republican members hammered away at the guidelines, echoing the key talking points that industry has used, including the potential loss of jobs and the prospect that voluntary guidelines won't end up being all that voluntary.
Subcommittee members also scolded the Interagency Working Group that proposed the guidelines—made up of the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Health and Human Services—for overstepping its authority and failing to deliver what Congress had initially requested.
“The Senate report language called for a study and a report to Congress. We have neither a study nor a report; rather we have a quasi-regulatory maneuver that has drawn fire from a broad range of organizations and members of Congress,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, under which both of the subcommittees fall.
With the exception of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who said he “couldn’t believe” what he was hearing from his Republican colleagues, even House Democrats were skeptical about the guidelines, though they were stopping short of agreeing with their Republican colleagues that the guidelines should be withdrawn.
“The standards would be difficult for the food companies to meet,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.
There seemed to be a growing consensus in the room that the debate had also changed because of the food industry’s new self-regulatory plan, which was proposed by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in July. There’s nothing Washington likes better than self-regulation.
“The CFBAI should be encouraged and given a chance to test out its impact,” said Butterfield.
“We encourage self-regulation,” agreed David Vladeck, the director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “As we studied the comments we got, we realized we were perhaps too ambitious . . . The new uniform CFBAI nutrition criteria appear to be a step forward in changing the food advertising landscape.”
In his testimony, released prior to the hearing, Vladeck indicated the IWG was ready to soften the guidelines, based in large part on the comments and the CFBAI’s new plan. He reiterated that Wednesday.
The whole hearing left a bad taste in the mouths of the food advocates, who were expecting more of a dialogue on the best nutrition principles to attack obesity. "What's surprising is that Congress holds a hearing to protect the food and advertising industry, instead of holding a hearing about protecting children," said Margo Wootan, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's director of nutrition policy. "The industry has used its power to try and intimidate the [federal] agencies."
Though the IWG has said they would release a final proposal by the end of the year, it could happen sooner rather than later. "I think they will try and rush forward with a final proposal. It's less time they'll get beaten up. They're not getting a lot of Congressional support."